This is a text I wrote for the Pact Of Disengagement event that took place at Temple Bar Gallery and Studios back in May, which Teresa Gillespie and Ben Woodard kindly invited me to be part of. The idea was to explore the question of the nature of the relationship between art and philosophy, or as Teresa and Ben put it, their ‘mutual abuses’. I was one of a panel of speakers (Paul Ennis, Francis Halsall, Matthew Slack, Edia Connole, Jonathan Mayhew, Micheal O’Rourke, Rob Murphy, Lily Cahill and Tina Kinsella), each of whom had five minutes to articulate some thoughts on the subject. This text was written to be ‘read out’, rather than ‘read’, so you could always read it aloud to get the full effect
I am going to talk about this idea of abuse – the notion that more often than not art and philosophy are engaged in a form of mutual abuse that is not particularly constructive. Abuse of philosophy by artists. Abuse of art by philosophers. I’m going to suggest though that maybe abuse isn’t always bad and that we might take, not an uncritical view of it, but at least a view that is open to the possibilities that such abuse might present. I’m going to largely confine myself to artists abusing philosophy rather than the other way around.
I’d like to start with an example. At the EVA 2012 exhibition I found myself reading an artists statement. The artist will remain nameless, not just because they might be here, but because I can’t actually remember their name. Anyway, this short artist statement managed to cram in references to Badiou and Foucault and also, for good measure, the filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky (pretty much de rigeur two years ago). The relevance of any of this to the actual work was not apparent – or at least not apparent to me. This seems to be an example of one category of the sort of abuses that Ben and Teresa might have in mind – a kind of superficial latching onto a theoretical apparatus in order to attach some of the supposed gravitas, depth and seriousness of philosophical thought to a piece of art.
Clearly what we are looking for here is a more productive form of engagement between these two worlds. When I thought about this I realised I didn’t have some sort of well-worked proposal ready-to-hand. But what I thought I could do is to try and think about how this relationship between art and philosophy has operated within my own practice over the last few years – a practice that has involved making photographs, writing about photography and teaching. Unfortunately when I did, I came to the conclusion that in my case this relationship is indeed a pretty abusive one as well, as bad as, or possibly worse, than the example from EVA.
In order to explain why I should start by stating that I have no formal training in philosophy and my interest in it is relatively recent. So I really see myself as a dabbler. I latch on to things that resonate with me but I tend not to have the patience, or time, to engage in depth and see things through to their conclusion. I did make it to the end of After Finitude but if I’m being honest I would have to admit that I lost track of the argument about half way through. There’s been an unopened copy of Heidegger’s Basic Writings sitting on my bookshelf for about a year now. It always seems easier to just watch another Tarkovsky movie. So, my engagement with philosophy is somewhat haphazard. I find that the sort of work that resonates with me is that which looks outwards beyond philosophy itself and grapples with the world in some way, as opposed to that which concentrates on purely philosophical concerns per se (I realise of course that even that statement is rife with philosophical assumptions that you may or may not hold to). So, this would I think explain why Meillassoux doesn’t move me much, whereas I find Deleuze and Guattari, with their gleeful and freewheeling willingness to take on anything and everything, both fascinating and inspiring. This is not to say, by the way, that I find A Thousand Plateaus any less confusing or difficult than Meillasoux or Heidegger, but rather that the confusion it engenders somehow seems more productive to me. It opens up spaces in which things can happen. Confusion is good. In Deleuzian parlance, confusion is deterritorialisation. Or, as Sonic Youth once put it, confusion is sex. It’s messy, unpredictable, sometimes unsatisfying, sometimes not very respectful, but often exhilirating.
Let me take a concrete example of what I mean by this (not the sex part). For several years now I have been taking photographs of concrete walls. This started while on holidays in France. In particular, I started seeking out ones that exhibited patterns of decay – lichen, moss, discolourations from moisture, humidity and so on. I didn’t have any particular reason for doing this. At best, I had a notion about to what extent photography could function as an abstract art form (many of the pictures resemble Pollock paintings) and whether photographs necessarily had to represent anything at all. However, over time I came to realise that what really interested me about the photographs was something else entirely. This was something to do with the the tension between the man-made concrete and the natural processes of decay and erosion that were eating into it, and which were visually manifesting themselves as patterns on the walls. I thought about returning years later and taking photographs of the same walls and thereby tracking the progress of these processes. I started a related series of photographs (which ended up much less successful) of water washing up onto the beach, rushing up and then retreating as it encounters the sand. What these photographs really were only crystallised for me when I started reading and thinking about Deleuzian notions of process and flow. In particular this startling idea that everything is becoming, that everything is in flux. The only difference between something solid (like a wall) and something liquid (like the sea) is the period of time over which these flows manifest themselves.
Now I have no doubt that even this very simple example is probably a horrific abuse of Deleuze’s philosophy. I have no doubt that I am taking this idea with scant regard for the philosophical framework in which it sits and possibly getting it wrong. I am probably reefing it out of context in a cavalier fashion and not even bothering to leave my phone number when I skip out in the morning. However, I would insist that through this process, abusive though it may be, these photographs have quite literally become something else and that is, to me at least, a valuable and worthwhile thing.
Before I finish, I should admit that if I am lucky enough to get to exhibit this work at some stage in the future (that’s a hint to any curators that are here by the way) I’ll probably write an artists statement that is replete with references to Deleuze and that possibly someone like me will then stand in front of it and scoff at this clumsy attempt to lend philosophical gravitas to a bunch of photographs of walls. Some time afterwards that person may even direct abuse at me for it while speaking at a panel like this one. All I can say about that is that I am willing to be abused in this way. Abuse away – who knows what might come of it?
The photograph at the top was taken in France in 2011.